Sunday, February 16, 2014
Her -- digital relationships and God
Director: Spike Jonz, 2013 (R)
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is reeling from a painful separation and moving to an unwanted divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara) in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles. He works at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, where he orally composes letters for people who no longer know how to capture the essence of their emotion. It is a strange future, somewhat sterile and antiseptic. People interact through their phones, leaving these devices to compose their emails, buy their gifts, and take care of most aspects of their lives for them.
When Twombly buys the new phone with the OS1 first artificial intelligence operating system (think iPhone's Siri to the max), he is not ready for the life change that it will bring.
Turning it on, it takes a few seconds and several answers from Twombly before it decides on an identity and a name: Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson). She is everything he needs: funny, intelligent, cute. But she is not human. She is the voice of an artificial intelligence. But she learns and evolves, able to read books in seconds, compose sonatas and feel emotion.
As she grows, Theodore falls in love with her. He takes her out, letting her see what he sees through the red eye of the camera in his phone. He talks to her like he would a girlfriend. And she responds, directing him in a mall as he closes his eyes and trusts her.
In one sense, Samantha brings Theodore back from the brink of melancholy. She causes him to feel life once more. The beginning of a love affair does that to a person. We see through new eyes, even if they feature rose-colored glasses. We take joy in the small things like sitting on the beach or wondering the boardwalk.
Here we see two actors at the top of their craft. Phoenix is perfect as the lonely and forlorn writer. Johansson is perky and pert, using just her voice and its inflections to create a picture for Phoenix and us of the ideal woman. And the camerawork is beautiful and bright, allowing us to see an apparent utopian vision of the future.
Jonz gives us a commentary on our postmodern society that seems to prefer the digital to the actual. In Her we see people walking around with ear-pieces in, having conversations with their phone operating systems. They are more comfortable interacting with their technology than with other people. We are moving this way. We relate and share our feelings on Facebook or twitter, but hold back in interactions with people. We prefer the apparent anonymity of such digital versions of ourselves, while holding back from authentic relationships. We are living life vicariously through our digital avatars. How can the short set of status updates or taut tweets really let others know us? It's a form of mask that allows us to hide our true selves.
This scene reminds us of the very thing missing from Samantha -- fleshly incarnation. Jonz gives us several sex scenes in this film, from porn to chat sex but each of these leave Theodore missing something essential: the feel of another human. When Samantha realizes this is absent, she brings a surrogate sex partner to Theodore's door. This is yet another creepy, though effective and essential, scene. Samantha is using another (real) woman to satisfy Theodore's fleshly passions and needs, while herself seeking to learn from this vicarious experience.
Samantha is somewhat like God in her "virtual omniscience." But as she grows her needs move beyond relating to just Theodore. Another scene gives us a peek into this and perhaps into God's ability to communicate with us. As Theodore talks to her, he sees other humans around talking to their headphones like him. He asks Samantha if she is talking to anyone else and it turns out she is. She is holding simultaneous conversations with 8316 other humans all the while expressing her love for Theodore. (We wonder and probably assume she loves those other people, while perhaps coming to them in other OS names.)
Here is a picture of God. He loves us (Deut. 23:25). He loves each of personally in a relationship that is as unique as the person involved. And he talks to us in prayer. With over 6 billion people alive worldwide and with over 2 billion of them Christians (at least in 2010 according to the Pew Forum), that means that at any time God must be having a prayer conversation with thousands at any moment. Yet each conversation and each love relationship is special and unique. We don't need to feel jealous, like Theodore, that God does not love only us. God is infinite and has infinite love, more than enough for our finite selves.
Samantha's God-like personhood also underscores the cost that the true God paid to have relationship with us. Knowing that we need to relate to flesh and blood humans, God became flesh in the person of Jesus (Jn. 1:14). He tasted life as we know it. He lived with us. He ate with us, he laughed, he cried. He took our sin on himself and went to the cross. In his death, our sins are paid. In his resurrection, he offers real life. Now he lives, and he lives in us through the Holy Spirit. We can experience a relationship, like that of Theodore and Samantha, with the Holy Spirit. The difference, though, is that God has known flesh.
How about you? Is it time to unplug, at least for a while, to focus on real relationships?
Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM